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Keeping Conventions : When Being Unique is a Bad Thing

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As a user, there are some things that are universally understood. We know that a red stop sign means to stop. We know what a light switch looks like. We know that an M on a clothing tag means medium.

These universal conventions prevent users from having to make their own deductions regarding the meaning of certain objects and symbols. This should also be applied to visual design. 

Yes, it’s good to be unique and different and to stand out from the crowd for many things, but when it comes to using universally recognized icons, its a good idea to stick with the mainstream.

Let’s take a look at examples where it’s not usually best to flex your creative muscle.

RSS Feed Buttons

A Standard RSS IconA typical RSS Icon.

The icon for subscribing to an RSS feed has now become so universal that most people grasp what it is quickly. Obviously, you would like to increase your subscribers so it is very important to keep your RSS button prominent and recognizable. If people have to spend time looking for or deciphering what your RSS button is, it is possible they will miss it entirely and you will lose their subscription.

Shopping Cart Buttons

Shopping Cart Icons a user may expectA typical menu with shopping cart buttons.

Shopping carts are one of the most important features in an online store. Having a recognizable shopping cart icon that allows customers to click and see what items they have selected and directs them to checking out is a way of streamlining online shopping and making it easier to receive money from customers. The cart button is the most recognized icon, but some sites also use shopping bags which, though not as effective, is an acceptable substitute. 

Search Boxes

Google: The Most Popular Search Bar on the netMost people know exactly how to use Google’s Search without thinking.

This is a very recognizable tool that shouldn’t be messed with too much. A search box will help people to utilize your site and to find what they are looking for, so it makes sense that the search box looks like other search boxes and is also easy to find. 

The key here is to make your site easy to use and to prevent visitors from having to think too hard. It’s good if things like RSS Subscription buttons and shopping carts are utilized, and having these easy to find means one more reason to get what you are looking for out of your visitors. Though it is tempting to break the mold and do something unique with these features, keeping them recognizable is likely to serve you better in the long run.

What other online features do you think would be good to keep conventional?

About the Author

Redd Horrocks

Redd Horrocks hails from South East England. She moved to Atlanta at the age of eighteen and has enjoyed her life here ever since. She has a degree in Communications and Media Studies and now works in Professional Theatre Administration. She is also a Freelance Writer and runs Distilled Rose, a personal finance blog. Redd also contributes to or manages four other blogs with topics ranging from Personal Finance to Vegetarian Cuisine.


  • Aaron Irizarry Reply

    I would say contact forms should stay pretty routine… that would fall in with the search forms, and client/user log in fields.

    No matter how “cool/artsy/creative” something is… If people don’t know how to use it, it becomes art.. something that can only be appreciated visually, but not use to accomplish a desired user experience.

    keep the great articles coming

    ~ Aaron I

  • Kyle Reply

    I think you style your strong tags like links. It confuses me. This is one instance where I think creativity makes content less effective.

  • Ryandc Reply

    Good article, although it’d be cool if it covered alot more issues. Such as the placement of a website’s logo in the top left, and being clickable.

  • Redd Horrocks Reply

    @Aaron Irizarry: Thanks Aaron! Contact forms are another important one.

    @Ryandc: Good point, Ryan. Logo’s being top left and clickable is definitely best when consistent. Thanks for reading!

  • Matthew Kammerer Reply

    @Kyle: Our tags on UX Booth? That is a very valid point. I am a big believer usability fixes often come from the users. Thanks so much for pointing it out, I will bring it up at our next meeting :).

  • David Leggett Reply

    @Kyle: Sent an email your way Kyle. Thanks for your suggestion. Styling links to look like links, and everything else to not look like a link is an important convention itself. I should be able to identify without thought whether or not I can click on something.

    Great post Redd!

  • Rachel Nabors Reply

    Breadcrumbs. Breadcrumbs are best identified when they are at the topmost part of a page, smaller in size than the rest of the text and sporting “>” between page links. Each link should be underlined, and the last item in the list should not be a link, but rather the title of the page in bold.

  • Grant Reply

    An area I would like to see a better standard develop is in links that open a new browser window. Maybe there is a graphical way we can differentiate those from links that open in the same window? Personally I think there should be a really good reason to have a link open in a new window, but that’s definitely a personal preference.

  • James Breeze Reply

    I agree! Am am consistently frustrated by people who make a site different for difference sake… There are ways to make the design cool and different (colours and stuff) but still make it usable!

  • David Leggett Reply

    @Grant: Some sites do an excellent job of this already with the use of a small icon next to outbound links. Typically, it’s an icon like this. We use it ourselves for trackbacks where the external site does not have a favicon.

    @Jonathan Patterson: I’ll second Redd, but you’re right too. There are exceptions for everything. All of those icons from the Smashing Magazine RSS icon pack might be unique in design, but a few things always remain the same (Like the symbol always being white and orange).

    However, you would not want to make your RSS icon Green and Yellow, or make a new symbol of your own for subscribers.

    Good responses, and that’s a wonderful icon pack!

  • Ahad Bokhari Reply

    Convention over Configuration is probably the most overlooked factor in design as well as development..I actually prefer an environment where you don’t have to choose, unless absolutely necessary!

    I’m a Rails fanboy and i love the way they limit your choices from the GET GO.

    We all complain that there are not enuff choices to make, but when we are given those choices we don’t want to make them.

    Good article btw…

  • David Hamill Reply

    @Rachel Nabors There’s nothing to suggest that making your breadcrumb text smaller improves their affordance.

    @Jonathan Patterson: Just because you recognise these RSS logos, doesn’t mean everyone will. Remember you are not your user.

  • Catherine Reply

    Just a note from an average internet user:

    I don’t know how to use RSS feeds. I think a lot of websites lose out on subscribers because they forget to inform us how to use the RSS feed. I’m too timid to actually click on the stripey orange button because I’ve received no reassurances that I won’t get spammed, scammed or abused.
    The icon is familiar, yes – I see it everywhere. But just because it’s there doesn’t mean that I know what it is.

    I like links that open in a new tab (It gives me a warm feeling inside). I find it easier to close a new tab than to travel back in time in search of the information I’d previously been working with. However, I don’t know when a link will open in a new tab or not, so I RMB on links and open them in a new tab. I like the outbound link icon that David Leggett provided, but again, had he not described it’s function, I wouldn’t have known what to do with it.

    Links that open in a new browser window frustrate me. The internet is a tool. I wear the pants in this relationship. I don’t want it to think for itself. When something happens that I feel is out of my control, like a link opening in a new window, I close the window, curse excessively and immediately leave the site. Average users like me are terrified of having the wool pulled over our eyes.

    Though I agree that sticking to familiar symbols creates a user-friendly website; as an average internet user, I also need to be told what the icons mean and what they do. I need to be reassured that my clicker-happy mouse finger isn’t going to land me in trouble.

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